BY KIERAN McCARTHY, sports editor
JAMES Coughlan knows a thing or two about number eights. It’s a position he soldiered in for years with Munster as he racked up 137 appearances. So when he says that Gavin Coombes could be Munster’s number eight for the next decade, we listen.
But as much as the 23-year-old man from Betsboro, just outside Skibbereen, is for the future, he is very much for the present too – and we saw that on Tuesday when he was called in to train with the Ireland squad this week.
This is the first time Coombes has been drafted into the Irish senior set-up and that’s a deserved reward for his tremendous form with Munster this season.
He has been wreaking havoc for Munster, a tornado ripping it up in the PRO14. He is the province’s breakout star this season. Look at his impressive PRO14 stats. He’s their top try scorer (6), has the most carries (96), is second in metres gained (220), is second in tackles made (72) and offloads (4), and is third in turnovers won (6). There was his hat-trick of tries against Ospreys in November. In the same month there were also back-to-back man-of-the-match awards. He also scored a try on his Champions Cup debut against Harlequins in December.
Gavin – son of Eric and Regina – is turning heads. This is the Skibb boy who, along with his first cousin Liam who is also with the Munster senior squad, won the South Munster U13 League Cup, the U15 South Munster League and Cup and the U18 league with Skibbereen RFC. And now on the bigger stages his stock is soaring. With his giant six-foot six-inch frame, the backrow forward has been impossible to stop this season. He has even been christened ‘Super Gav’ within the Munster ranks.
Corkman James Coughlan, who lives and works in France as a defensive coach with Brive in the Top 14, always keeps an eye on the goings-on at home with Munster – and Coombes has his attention.
‘I think it’s going really well, Gavin still has a lot of rugby development to do but he’s very, very physical, he’s a big lad, and he’s only going to get better,’ Coughlan says.
‘He’s pushing bigger names out of position, guys who have been there a longer time. In the long term he is probably the number eight for Munster for the next ten years, if he stays fit.
‘He needs to take it year by year for now, get his body used to the level that he is playing at. When he does that there will be no stopping him, if he stays fit and avoids injury.’
When Ireland’s Six Nations squad was announced last week there was an expectation that the Skibbereen juggernaut would be included – but he wasn’t, initially. That his omission was the subject of much debate highlights how far Coombes has come in such a short timeframe.
But he did get the call on Tuesday after both Caelan Doris and Quinn Roux were ruled out of this weekend’s Six Nations clash away to Wales in Cardiff. That opened the door for Coombes and Leinster lock Ryan Baird, who were both drafted in to train with the squad this week. It’s another step in the right direction for Coombes, who will now see what life is like at the highest level.
Think back to last October when Bantry’s Fineen Wycherley, another West Cork man on the rise with Munster, spent three days with Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad ahead of their final two Six Nations games. He went back to Munster wanting more.
‘Just getting a feel for what is was like up there, I obviously know why lads work so hard. Getting there for a couple of days you can see why everyone works so hard during the year to get to that place,’ Wycherley said afterwards. It will have the same effect on Coombes, by showing him what’s required at the top level and leaving him wanting more.
His time will come, James Coughlan says, but we need to be patient too. Coombes only made his senior debut for Munster in September 2018, has only played 27 games for the province and only made his Champions Cup debut in December 2020 and has only two Champions Cup career appearances in total. Coombes’ recent body of work is impressive, but not as extensive as the back-rowers already in Andy Farrell’s current squad, like CJ Stander (30 years old), Peter O’Mahony (31), Will Connors (24) and Josh van der Flier (27).
Coughlan is a man who knows how to harness young talent; in his two years as an academy coach at Pau – a Top 14 club in France – 27 of 30 players went on sign professional contracts. He likes what he has seen from Coombes, and points out that he is not the finished article, has much to learn and has time on his side.
‘Gavin plays like a fella who is 25 or 26 years old. He has a physical presence and he’s intelligent in regards to his running lines. Defensively he has work to do but he’ll know that too,’ Coughlan explains.
‘Sometimes we rush to judge players but we need to realise too that he is still quite young and has loads to work on – the intricacies of his line-out work will need to improve, and in regard to his defensive work and his decision-making around the breakdowns.
‘But for the basis of the Munster number eight for the foreseeable future you’d can’t look past him. He is definitely the standout young fella of this group that is breaking through.’
Whether or not Coombes will be used in the Six Nations, we’ll wait and see, but he’ll benefit from being involved with Ireland training this week. It’s another building block in his development.
When the 2023 Rugby World Cup rolls around Gavin will be 25 years old and, if he keeps moving forward like he is, a key player for Munster. Surely too Ireland coach Andy Farrell has one eye on the future as well as the present, and integrating top young talents, like Gavin Coombes and Fineen Wycherley, will benefit them and Ireland in the long run.
‘Gavin has a big career ahead of him,’ James Coughlan adds, and the first player from Skibbereen RFC to join the Munster Academy who then became the club’s first player to earn a senior contract with the province is now closer to becoming Skibb’s first senior international.